I knew the Waldorf theory had panned out when Evie propped herself up in bed to query me. What befell Cricket’s parents? Was Ling Ling wicked or warmhearted? Did Cricket walk Buddy in Central Park by herself?
The Cricket stories made such an impression that Evie began calling her younger sister Cricket months before she was born. As a teenager, Ann still goes by Cricket, like it or not. (Oddly enough, the flesh-and-blood Cricket resembles the fictional version—a gimlet-eyed New York girl with deadpan banter and a sizzling streak of independence.)
The Cricket chronicles, and all the ensuing stories, halted mid-episode when Evie’s fluttering eyelids lowered by increments and her soft exhales assumed the steady rhythm of sleep. She sometimes raised a forefinger, indicating that she was still listening with eyes closed. But the finger never stayed aloft for long. It felt like a reprieve when my audience of one fell asleep for good. I rarely knew how to bring the plots to tidy resolution. Storytelling, like parenting, requires constant improvisation. Instinct is the only rudder.
With Evie asleep, I would stagger into the kitchen looking for dinner, though over time I developed the habit of lingering in the dark, listening to the muffled complaints of taxi horns and the wheeze of city buses lumbering across Columbus Avenue. No doubt I paused out of exhaustion. I was spending long days toiling in a newspaper newsroom. I can see now that I also stayed for a measure of solace and satisfaction. Story hour was the moment of the day when I felt most present; I was reluctant to break the spell. I had brought to life and set in motion characters drawn from roommates, workmates, aunts, uncles, and other family members. The cast had its own gravitational pull. They softened the coarse edges of everyday life. Stories, I had come to understand, are the balm of the soul.
My repertoire of stories would compete for dominance, like TV shows vying for prime time. For a period they gave way altogether to My Father’s Dragon, a chapter book about a boy, Elmer Elevator, who runs away from home to rescue a baby dragon enslaved on faraway Wild Island. The lions, monkeys, and other mean-spirited island creatures had knotted a stout rope around the baby dragon’s neck and forced him, as a matter of convenience, to shuttle them across a muddy river that divides the island. Ruth Stiles Gannett wrote the book in 1948 “to amuse [herself] between jobs” four years after graduating from Vassar College. It was a family collaboration. Her husband chose the typeface. Her stepmother illustrated Elmer’s Homeric journey to Wild Island and back with grease pencil.
My brother Petey sent Evie the book. Its title page bears a hand-written inscription made crooked by his decline. Evie never got to discuss My Father’s Dragon with Petey. Oncologists diagnosed him with an inoperable brain tumor not long after the book arrived. I was on deadline at The New York Times when his email hit my inbox. The news shuddered me to the core, but it was not entirely unexpected. We had vacationed at a Yucatan beach with Petey and his family weeks earlier. He arrived in Mexico somber-faced and suffering a bad flu, or so he said. As the week wore on, his illness acquired an ominous gravity. Headaches drove him to sit in the shade with a towel draped over his head. He seemed detached, unreachable.
In the wrenching months of deterioration before Petey fell into a coma, Evie could reliably make him smile. On my laptop I keep a photo of her in a tiny red felt nightgown sitting down to eat a plate of scrambled eggs. Petey leans in with mouth agape, as if to gobble the eggs before she can sink her fork in. I put her in bed with him, and they would poke each other and guffaw. She was, of course, unaware of the foreboding in the room.
My father wrote a short eulogy for Petey’s memorial service. He is an old-fashioned gentleman of stoic bearing, but he was unable to read his words. And so I read them for him, standing in a soft rain on an island in the Potomac River before two hundred or so friends. The eulogy referred to Petey as “our gentle son.” He was gentle. Gentle but droll—like a sweet-tempered Monty Python comic. He was an ornithologist, an evolutionary biologist employed by the Smithsonian, but he possessed an unlikely rapport with children—a fairy dust. He didn’t come at kids all moony-faced and smirky. He let them gravitate to him, drawn by his quiet waggery. When a niece was homesick for her parents, we aunts and uncles in a shared beach house tried to comfort her with varying degrees of failure. Petey was the one who could lull her contentedly to sleep with his own bedtime stories told in his buttery baritone.
When Evie and I reread My Father’s Dragon after Petey’s death, I sensed that the young hero, Elmer Elevator, was a version of Petey—a boyish adventurer inexplicably gone from his household. Elmer departs on his rescue mission in the middle of the night with his father’s knapsack stuffed with 25 peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. He leaves no parting word behind—no note, no goodbye. The book does not show his parents waking to find their son missing. Nor does it convey the terrible days of anguish that surely followed. Elmer’s own thoughts cast back to his home only once, and fleetingly, when he and Boris, the liberated dragon, stand stranded on a sandbar with the tide precariously rising above their ankles. An illogical backwater of my mind wondered if Petey might have sent the book to foretell of his own departure.